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Jul 05

The Royal Palace Museum

Luang Prabang was the location of the Lao Royal Palace for much of the 20th century. However, Laos hasn’t been a monarchy since 1975, when the Communists took over, and the palace was accordingly converted into a museum. For US$2, you get to see the place where royalty used to dine, sleep (the King and Queen had separate bedrooms) and receive foreign dignitaries. Most interesting though, was the gifts room, where various displays laid out gifts bestowed to past Lao Kings from visiting foreigners.

The majority of Asian nations had presented ornaments of incredible craftsmanship and intricacy. France gave a lot of crockery – Limoges porcelain and the like. The United States gave nothing of artistic value, instead delivering a gift that no other nation could replicate – a small piece of fabric portraying the Lao flag, brought to the moon by Apollo XI, and a small vial of moon rocks. There was also a model of the lunar lander and the keys to several US cities. Why Knoxville gave King Sisavangvatthana the keys to the city is a mystery to me. Australia’s gift was a small wooden boomerang, and two rather shoddy-looking gilded boxeds, encrusted with a handful of opals – delivered by none other than the Right Honourable Harold Holt. The Lonely Planet reports that the gifts are organised in the room by country – with gifts from capitalist countries on one side, and gifts from socialist/communist countries on the other – but some reorganisation must have taken place subsequently because there is no sign of such ideological division in the giftroom anymore.

Along the way, there are 16 paintings depicting the life of Prince Vessantara, purported to be one of the final reincarnations of Buddha. In an annual festival, the story of his life is related in the temples over the course of the day in celebration of it. It could be a case of cultural relativism, but I am still struggling to grasp at some thread of logic behind it all. The story goes like this. It starts off well, with the Prince donating his white elephant of “perennial prosperity” to the people of Kalinga, who happened to be starving at the time. This didn’t go down well with his contituents, who promptly banished him, his wife and two children from the kingdom. His family went into the jungle to become hermits, until one day, an “evil Brahmin” appeared, looking for slaves. The Brahmin, picked up the scent of the Prince’s family and set off after them. The Prince’s wife then had a dream of Something Bad happening to her children and warned the Prince, begging him to protect them. The Prince gave her some reassurances, but when she was off gathering food in the jungle, the Brahmin turned up and the Prince promptly sold the two children into slavery. As you do.

The wife attempted to rescue the children, but was blocked by three mythical creatures who transformed themselves into tigers to block her path. Then the Prince tried to sell his wife into slavery as well.

What happens next is a little unclear. The wife was not sold, but instead the couple were granted eight wishes by some deity. The paintings do not disclose what happened with those wishes. But anyway, the slave driving Brahmin ends up getting lost in the jungle and turns up in the wrong town. The “wrong town” happens to be one where the king is the children’s grandfather. The king buys the children back and is joyed to hear the whereabouts of his son. Soon after, the Prince is given a grand welcome back parade by the king. The king then abdicates, again for reasons unknown, and the Prince is crowned king.

End of story. Feel free to fill in the gaps with additional research, for I’m sure there must be some in a story which involves selling your family off to slavery. But for now, it’s all a mystery to me.